'Every day I cry': For Syrian refugees on Greek island, outlook is bleak

While the UN convenes a summit in New York on refugees and migrants to remind members of their obligations to protect the world's persecuted, some of those same persecuted, languishing on a Greek island, wonder why the world still needs reminding.

As UN summit on refugees opens in New York, the view from a camp in Greece offers little hope

Bushra, a 32-year-old kindergarten teacher from Deir ez-Zour in Syria, says her husband and her father were killed in the fighting. She says life became too difficult under ISIS militants controlling parts of the region and fled for Greece with her small daughter and her mother. (Pascal Leblond/CBC)

While the UN convenes a summit in New York on the mass movement of refugees and migrants in a bid to remind members of their obligations to protect the world's persecuted, some of those same persecuted — languishing on the Greek island of Chios in the stagnant pond that is life in a refugee camp — wonder why the world still needs reminding.

"Every day I cry," says a 32-year-old Syrian single mother named Bushra who, with her baby daughter and her mother, fled ISIS and the Syrian conflict six months ago.

Her husband and father were both killed, she says, when a bomb brought down their house in the city of Deir ez Zor.

She knows she is now caught in a great limbo of bureaucratic indifference as she seeks to navigate the European Union's relocation program for Syrian refugees.

An ordinary activity in extraordinary circumstances: Children living in a refugee camp in the centre of the main town on the Greek island of Chios watch a movie on projection screen. The island is home to triple the amount of refugees it has the capacity to take care of, and tensions are flaring with some groups of locals. (Pascal Leblond/CBC)

"Every day I lose confidence in myself," she says, speaking from a cluster of tents off the main square in Chios-town, where she and about 300 others wait for news of their fate in an informal camp supported by a charity.

"I have no money. I have nothing."

It's a refrain so common amongst the refugees living in camps or squats or on the streets across Greece that it can seem to lose meaning. Greece has become a monument to the European Union's shortcomings when it comes to handling the worst refugee crisis to reach its shores since the end of the Second World War.

An estimated 60,000 refugees and migrants are now bottlenecked or stuck in a logjam here, despite the EU's pledge a year ago to relocate 160,000 mainly Syrian asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other parts of Europe by September 2017.


So far, 4,776 asylum seekers have been relocated, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. That's just three per cent of the overall goal with a year already gone.

The statistics have turned the Greeks into genuine soothsayers. They warned that their country would become a massive holding pen for unwanted refugees and migrants, and that's what it's become.

Resentment and anti-foreigner sentiment amongst the locals — especially on islands in the Aegean that were to have been processing centres for the relocation scheme, not permanent camps — is on the rise.

Last week, there were two protests on Chios, an island of some 50,000 people.

Demonstrators calling for refugees and migrants (now numbering more than 3,000 on the island) to be expelled gathered in the centre of Chios-town just across from the small camp where Bushra is staying.

Children in a refugee camp in the main town on the Greek island of Chios watch a SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon. (Pascal Leblond/CBC )

"They told us go out, go out of our island," she says, adding that she's afraid of being attacked after someone she knows from the camp was beaten up.

"He was walking with his wife outside next to the park, and two men attack his wife," she says, indicating that they had tried to remove her headscarf. When her husband fought back, they broke his arm.

"I am proud because I am Muslim," she says. "But I am not dangerous. I am in danger."

Like so many, Bushra says she just wants off the island at this point. But conditions on the mainland are no better. Aid workers and volunteers speak to a real deterioration in conditions both in terms of safety and hygiene.

At night, Bushra and other women staying in the camp say they feel unsafe even using the communal toilets because of the mixing of families and men traveling on their own.

Not enough

Omar is an unaccompanied minor from Syria trying to reach his uncle in Switzerland. He says it will take five months before he's given an interview. The EU was to have sent reinforcements to help with processing and translation, but critics say it hasn't been enough.

While waiting for his interview, Omar says he can travel within Greece. He went to Athens but came back to Chios to wait, because conditions there were so poor.

And while the EU's imperfect deal with Turkey — reached last spring and threatening new arrivals on the Greek islands with a swift return to Turkey — has seen a dramatic drop in the numbers of people arriving in Europe via the eastern Mediterranean … the boats are still coming.

Sunday night, a boat carrying 23 people arrived on Chios. The Turkish coast is just seven kilometres away. The passengers were from Tunisia, Algeria, Syria and Afghanistan. Three were unaccompanied minors, and one Syrian woman came on her own with three children.

In August, more than 3,000 people made the crossing from Turkey to Greece, a far cry from the 3,000 coming every day last summer, but still a significant number in a country struggling to cope.


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.